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Facing a Pay Squeeze at NBC, Linda Ellerbee Takes a Half-Million-Dollar Hike to ABC

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The plumbing was gone, the air conditioner had quit, workmen were barging in and out of the tired old brownstone down in Greenwich Village, but there was a more practical crisis facing the woman in the white blouse. Linda Ellerbee, 41, the Today show correspondent who led us gently into the weekend with her irreverent essays entitled TGIF and who, in the opinion of colleagues, was rudely snubbed by NBC for reasons having more to do with style than substance, was having the last laugh. The two other major America television networks were in heavy competition for her services.

It wasn’t that simple—nothing ever is with Linda Ellerbee. As she saw it, what was at stake was nothing less than her soul. On the one hand, there was the lure of big money, fame and the promiscuous use of hairdressers (as co-anchor of the CBS Morning News). On the other hand, there was still a lot of money and fame, though not so much of either, and the attraction of being able to do her own kind of work (on ABC’s Our World, a new program designed around her). “If I go with CBS, I will have to wake up very early,” she said. “But if I go with ABC, I can write my own material. I can edit.”

Of course, there was never any doubt about which choice she would make. Obedient to her instincts, those of a mother salmon headed upstream, she went for ABC’s promise of greater creative freedom. Barring a last-minute monkey wrench from NBC, she will be the co-anchor for Our World, a program that she hopes will be literate and fine and win the awards and praise that she feels were denied her during her 11 years at NBC. She will earn about $500,000, double what she was making at NBC and about half of what she would have earned at CBS.

And so it goes. We do not need to take up a collection for Linda Ellerbee. For one thing, she now has a book (And So It Goes, G.P. Putnam’s Sons), a sharp-edged account of her TV career, which is sixth on the New York Times best-seller list. She has agreed to do the screenplay for her book, though not without some reservations: “I’ll write it, they’ll hate it, then they’ll hire someone else to rewrite it, and I’ll know what it is to write a screenplay.” And she recently signed a six-figure deal for a novel.

Linda Ellerbee may seem an unlikely best-selling author, but she makes an even more improbable television personality. We first became aware of her on NBC News Overnight, that late-night show a few years ago that developed a cult following and earned plaudits from the critics. She lacks the neon surface glow of the average newscaster but transmits a captivating warmth and vitality. She speaks about the world as we know it, framing the truth in ironic ellipses. “I do what I do pretty good,” she says. “Even NBC will admit that.”

There is an unhealed wound here. While her agents haggled over the various offers, part of her remained hurt, part of her curiously grateful to NBC. “They let me do things I never thought would end up on television,” she says. The Today show sent her home to Texas earlier this year for the state’s 150th anniversary of independence from Mexico, and she never mentioned the event. Instead she visited small towns and indicted them for the prejudice against blacks and Mexicans that still haunted her state. “It was a helluva series,” she says with defiant pride.

Ellerbee suspects that many of her problems at the network trace back to a lingering dispute over her weight. She gained about 20 pounds in the last few years and presents a somewhat ample silhouette. “A producer said to me that I was not going to anchor anything unless I lost weight,” she says. Suggestions that she should trim down were stubbornly resisted. “Makeup and hair and weight,” she says. “What’s that got to do with reporting?” Linda has since seen the light—sort of. “I am definitely going on a diet,” she says. “But for my health, not for the damn appearance. I’ve been fighting this weight thing all my life. Both parents were inclined to be heavy.”

Probably the conflicts with NBC went far beyond weight to subtler regions of corporate self-image and discipline. Even her Overnight co-anchor Lloyd Dobyns thought the dispute was crazy. “When they told her to lose weight, she would put on five pounds in defiance,” says Dobyns. “Listen, there are fights and there are fights. Who wants to fight to be fat?” The fact was that Ellerbee was, has always been, will always be, a handful. “I grew up in Texas,” she says, as if that fact explains all the contradictions in her life.

She was the only child born to Hallie and Ray Smith, who were liberals, to a point. “I came home from high school one day, and my mother said, ‘You know, Linda Jane, you were a good Christian girl until you got involved with all those Greeks.’ I had no idea what she was talking about. ‘Momma,’ I said, ‘we have no Greeks in my school.’ ‘Yes, you do,’ she said. ‘There’s that Socrates and that Aristotle. You were a good Christian girl till you got involved with them.’ ”

That was funny. Other things weren’t. She was cursed with an eye for painful detail. She noticed the separate water fountains, one for “whites” and one for “coloreds.” “I saw. The shame is I didn’t do anything about it.”

What she did do was go to college and marry a college sweetheart, something a lot of girls from Texas did at the time. It didn’t last. Marriages with Linda never do. She has four ex-husbands in the shadows of her past. The two children who live with her—Vanessa, 17, and Joshua, 16—are from the second marriage. “I was in Alaska in 1971 when their father was fired from his job,” she says. “We had a great party and then, in the middle of the night, I realized that I had grocery money until Thursday. It was like Gone With the Wind. I swore I would never allow myself to become helpless again.”

Taking leave of him, she became a reporter for a wire service in Dallas and then, in a famous incident in which a letter she wrote to a friend on a computer was accidentally sent over the wire to four states, she was fired. A local TV news director in Houston read the letter, thought she “wrote funny” and put her on the air. In 1973 she moved to WCBS-TV in New York and then in 1975 to network television.

She hasn’t forgotten the old days. Ellerbee is now the mistress of an old house (vintage 1852) where her friends feel free to come and go. Today a French photographer cooks dinner in the kitchen while a radical lawyer naps in the yard. “As far as I’m concerned, privacy has always been a state of the mind,” says Ellerbee, who years ago lived in a commune in Alaska. She claims she is not lonely, although all the husbands and lovers in her life have canceled or been canceled.

“Not long ago,” she remembers, “my daughter called me and said there’s an antiracism march in Philadelphia and will I come. I said maybe a reporter shouldn’t do that. She said, ‘You mean NBC is in favor of racism?’ So I went there and I marched.”

Vanessa stops her cold. Vanessa says she’d never be a television reporter. “There are too many things you cannot say. Too many things….”

The mother listens, pauses, then smiles. “How could I possibly be lonely with this around?”